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Researchers have created a ‘visual prosthetic’, a brain implant that ostensibly allows the blind to see.
A group of scientists hailing from the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston have developed a brain implant that allows those endowed with it to “see” the shape of letters.
Published in the scientific journal Cell, a new paper details how the device works by skipping the eye and relaying visual information from a camera straight to electrodes implanted in the brain.
While a device that allows the blind to fully regain vision is likely many years out from production, the brain implant stands as a vital step towards such a “visual prosthetic” and could still have a major impact on the lives of the blind and visually impaired.
What the researchers were able to create is nothing short of remarkable – participants were able to “see” the outlines of shapes by using complex sequences of electrical pulses sent to their brains.
Previous devices attempting to achieve the same result treated each electrode like a pixel, but not this one. In the same statement, first author Michael Beauchamp, professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, mentioned that they drew inspiration from the idea of tracing a letter in the palm of someone’s hand.
“When we used electrical stimulation to dynamically trace letters directly on patients’ brains, they were able to ‘see’ the intended letter shapes and could correctly identify different letters,” senior author Daniel Yoshor from the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston said in a statement. “They described seeing glowing spots or lines forming the letters, like skywriting.”
Previous devices attempting to achieve the same result treated each electrode like a pixel, but not this one. In the same statement, first author Michael Beauchamp, professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, mentioned that they drew inspiration from the idea of tracing a letter in the palm of someone’s hand. “Rather than trying to build shapes from multiple spots of light, we traced outlines.”
“The ability to detect the form of a family member or to allow more independent navigation would be a wonderful advance for many blind patients,” Yoshor told Live Science.
Alas, the development of the device is still in its early stages; working with the human brain is as complex a task as one can be.
“The primary visual cortex, where the electrodes were implanted, contains half a billion neurons,” Beauchamp said in the statement. “In this study, we stimulated only a small fraction of these neurons with a handful of electrodes.”
“An important next step will be to work with neuro engineers to develop electrode arrays with thousands of electrodes, allowing us to stimulate more precisely,” he added. “Together with new hardware, improved stimulation algorithms will help realise the dream of delivering useful visual information to blind people.”